Thank you very much Presiding Officer.
I will give our latest assessment today of the spread of Omicron and, in light of that, I can confirm no immediate changes to the protections currently in force or to the advice we are giving the public.
However, I will also talk about the data we will be monitoring closely in the days ahead as we assess the likely impact of this wave of infection and the continued necessity and proportionality of our response.
I will also briefly summarise the protective measures which took effect earlier this week to help slow spread, and provide some further detail of the support available to businesses.
Finally, I will report on the delivery of booster vaccinations.
First, though, today’s statistics.
15,849 positive cases were reported yesterday – 28.9% of all tests carried out.
Now it’s worth noting that the much higher test positivity experienced over recent days may be partially explained by people being more selective about when to go for a test over the Christmas period.
However, this is by some margin the highest overall daily case number reported in the pandemic to date.
679 people are currently in hospital with Covid – which is 80 more than yesterday.
And 36 people are in intensive care - 1 fewer than yesterday.
I will say more shortly about the numbers of people with Covid in hospital and why this is an important indicator as we judge the most proportionate response going forward.
Sadly though, a further 3 deaths have been reported, taking the total number of deaths under this daily definition to 9,836.
And once again, I want to send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.
It is clear from these figures that the wave of Omicron that has been predicted is now rapidly developing.
Omicron now counts for around 80% of all cases and over the past week the number of reported cases overall has increased by 47%.
We should also bear in mind that any transmission over recent days will not yet be fully evident in the reported figures.
So it is reasonable to assume that we will continue to see steep increases in cases in the days and indeed possibly in the weeks ahead.
That said, it is also important to remember that our individual and collective behavior will influence how fast or otherwise the virus spreads.
The current surge would almost certainly be even higher, but for so many people following advice to cut down on social interactions in the run up to Christmas.
And given the speed and extent of the transmission we are experiencing now, it is really vital that we all continue to take sensible precautions and limit social interactions for a further period, as we learn more about the likely impact of this wave of infection and as we complete the booster vaccination programme.
Obviously one of the factors we are looking at most closely is the proportion of Omicron cases that require hospital treatment. This will tell us more about the severity of Omicron for individuals and also about the overall impact that it is likely to have on the NHS. This will therefore inform our ongoing response.
Before I say more about that, though, it is worth emphasising that there are other reasons to do all we can at this stage to slow down the spread.
Firstly, whatever the overall impact of Omicron turns out to be, we know that this virus will cause serious illness and death for some. We also know that for others, long Covid will cause ongoing suffering.
Secondly, we know that high levels of infection and therefore sickness absence, will be disruptive to the economy and the delivery of critical services - and I will say more later about how we are seeking to mitigate this.
However, as things stand, none of us should be complacent about getting Covid. We should take steps to avoid it if we can.
There is no doubt however, that the data we are looking at most closely just now is the conversion of cases into hospital admissions.
And there are here some grounds for optimism.
Over the past week, published studies have suggested that the risk of hospitalization from Omicron is lower - possibly significantly lower - than for other strains of the virus.
What is not yet fully understood is why this might be the case - whether it is because Omicron is inherently less severe, or because of its greater ability to infect those who have had prior infection or been vaccinated which means that more of those who get it carry a level of immunity that protects them from more serious illness.
We don’t yet know the answer to that but, either way, if it is the case that a much lower proportion of people with Omicron need hospital care compared to other strains of the virus, that is really good news – especially as Omicron is now the dominant strain and good news both in terms of individual health and overall impact.
And of course it would inform how we respond in the weeks ahead.
However - and this remains key - for at least the next couple of weeks, we do need to show continued caution as we assess in real time the impact that these higher case numbers will have on the NHS.
It is encouraging that, at least until now, the rise in cases experienced over the past few weeks has not translated into a corresponding rise in hospital admissions or occupancy.
On the contrary, the number of people in hospital with Covid has so far remained broadly stable.
However, again, we do need to exercise caution.
The numbers in hospital with Covid in England is now rising quite sharply - which may be a sign of things to come here.
And indeed today’s reported increase in hospital occupancy of 80 is the biggest we have seen for some time.
And we know that there is a time lag between rising cases and rising hospital admissions.
And, of course, in terms of sheer numbers, the benefits of a lower rate of hospitalization could be quickly cancelled out by the much higher case numbers resulting from significantly increased transmissibility.
So we will be monitoring all of this data very carefully in the days to come.
As well as looking at the headline numbers, we will also be interrogating the detail - for example, the breakdown between those in hospital because of Covid, and those in hospital who have Covid but who were admitted for different reasons; and also whether the average length of stay in hospital for those with Omicron is different to other variants.
All in all, I would expect that within the next couple of weeks, we will have a clearer picture and that this will then help us reach informed judgments about the most proportionate response going forward.
In the meantime, however, while we better understand the impacts and while more and more of us get the added protection of booster vaccinations - which will of course help reduce the impacts of Omicron - we must try to avoid the sheer volume of cases overwhelming us.
That is why it is prudent, indeed I would say it is essential, that we do act to slow transmission at this stage as much as possible.
Indeed that is why additional protections were announced last week and are now in force and I will summarise these shortly.
And it is also why, over Hogmanay and New Year’s day, and for at least the first week of January, we are advising everyone to stay at home more than normal, to reduce contacts with people outside our own households, and to limit the size of any indoor social gatherings that do take place so that they don’t include people from any more than 3 households. Also try to ventilate indoor spaces as much as possible.
And it remains our advice – our strong advice - that lateral flow tests should be taken just before meeting up with anyone from another household.
And if that shows a positive result, it is vital to immediately isolate and book a PCR test.
You should also isolate and book a PCR test if you have symptoms that might be Covid.
Following this advice is difficult and frustrating at the best of times I know. But it is even harder at this time of year.
But it really does help and it will be helping already not withstanding these very high case numbers. So please do stick with it for now.
In addition to this general advice to the public, the new protective measures relating to hospitality, public indoor places, and live events that I set out last week are now in force.
We will review these on an ongoing basis but, at this stage, our expectation is that they will be in force until 17 January.
That means, for now, limits on the size of live public events – though private life events such as weddings are exempt.
For indoor standing events the limit is 100; for indoor seated events 200; and for outdoor events it is 500 seated or standing.
I know some question the rationale for this - so let me set it out again.
Firstly, the higher transmissibility of Omicron means that large gatherings have a much greater potential to become rapid super-spreader events.
Second, there are transmission risks associated with travel to and from such events.
And, thirdly, they do place significant demands on emergency services – such as the police and ambulance service. At a time when emergency services are already dealing with high levels of staff absence due to the virus, not having large scale public events allows these services to focus on the delivery of core services to the public.
As well as limits on large events, some further protections are now in force for hospitality settings and other indoor public places.
A requirement for table service has been reintroduced for venues that serve alcohol for consumption on the premises.
And guidance has been issued to the effect that indoor hospitality and leisure venues should ensure 1m distance between different groups of customers. So one group – whether it is made up of one, two or three households – should be physically distanced from other such groups in the same venue.
Finally, unfortunately, nightclubs are now closed until 17 January, unless they have decided to remain open, without dancing, as hospitality premises - in which case they will follow the same rules and guidance as other hospitality venues.
All of these protections are important to help us deal with and reduce the impact of the public health challenge that Covid represents.
However, they also have a very significant impact on businesses.
Two weeks ago, I announced £100 million to support businesses affected by the advice to minimize contacts over the festive period. We have already detailed the allocation of that.
However, last week, I announced a further £275 million of support and I can give further detail today of how the first £100 million of that additional support is being allocated.
£16 million will be made available to support public transport providers through existing Covid support schemes.
£27 million will go to the culture sector, and a further £17 million to the events sector.
A further £32 million will be allocated to hospitality and leisure businesses, with an additional £10 million for those parts of the hospitality industry most severely impacted by the requirement for table service.
And up to £5 million will be allocated to nightclubs required to close.
We are also working closely with the sport sector. Sporting events are obviously affected by the limit on spectators, and also by cancellations due to Covid absences – however we also know that some of this impact will be alleviated by the rescheduling of events. So we want to make sure that the support we provide is effectively targeted and we will be confirming further details soon.
In total, we have now reached decisions on the allocation of £207 million of the £375 million being made available for business support.
And councils are now working to get that money into bank accounts as fast as possible.
Decisions on the allocation of the remaining funds will be confirmed following consultation with affected sectors on how it can best be targeted.
I know how difficult all of this for businesses.
And I wish it wasn’t necessary and I hope it isn’t necessary for long.
But there simply isn’t an easy tradeoff between protecting health and protecting the economy.
If Covid continues to spread rapidly, the economic impact in the form of staff absences and diminished consumer confidence will be severe and we’re already seeing those impacts.
So doing nothing won’t help business.
We must protect public health and the economy together - by slowing the speed at which Covid is spreading, while we complete the booster programme.
There are two further issues I want to touch on this afternoon.
I mentioned earlier the need to mitigate the impact of staff absences on the economy and critical services.
Now, obviously, the best way of doing this is by stemming transmission.
But we must also ensure the requirements for isolation are proportionate.
I indicated last week that we were weighing the risks and benefits of shortening the isolation period for index cases, and also potentially easing the requirement for all household contacts to isolate following a positive case.
These are finely balanced judgments and we are considering the current trends in infection carefully. However, I can confirm that we do hope to reach decisions in the next week with any changes taking effect from 5 January.
And we will keep Parliament updated.
In the meantime we have introduced a sectoral exemption scheme, subject to appropriate protections.
And I can confirm today a further change that will help ensure the exemption scheme - which is dependent on speedy turnaround of PCR tests – is effective.
The current surge in cases means testing capacity - sampling and processing capacity - is under pressure.
So we are now prioritising some slots for essential workers – such as NHS and transport staff – as well as for those who are clinically vulnerable or eligible for new Covid treatments.
And this ensures that essential workers get the test results they need to qualify for an exemption promptly.
This is a sensible step to take at this stage.
However, notwithstanding this priority for essential workers, let me stress that testing remains available for anyone who needs it.
If you try to book a test, and can’t find a slot available in a location you can get to, do try again later. Additional PCR test slots are released throughout the day.
Test & Protect is also, for now, focusing its telephone tracing on high risk settings, such as care homes.
The majority of us, if we test positive, will be contacted by text or e-mail, rather than by phone.
So if you are contacted by Test & Protect - either as a positive case or a close contact – please do respond and complete the online form, and make sure you follow all advice given.
The final point and the vital point indeed that I want to update on today is the progress of the vaccination programme.
Before I do so though, let me address this point. I’ve heard people ask in recent days what the purpose of booster vaccination is if we still have to restrict our activities for a period.
And I understand that question. But it is the answer that it is vital for all of us to understand.
Firstly, getting a booster doesn’t mean we won’t get Covid - though it will reduce the chances of that. But what it does do is significantly enhance our protection against serious illness. Getting boosted could quite literally save your life.
Because it doesn’t completely stop us getting or passing on the virus, those not fully vaccinated are still at significant risk. We won’t get the full benefit of the booster programme as a country until the maximum number of us are fully vaccinated. Which does mean that anyone choosing not to be vaccinated without good reason is acting irresponsibly. But the key point is this, until the programme is completed, and we are getting closer to that every day, we still need to slow down the spread.
In recent weeks there has been a huge increase in booster appointments and I want to put on record again my thanks to everyone involved in the delivery of the programme and to everyone coming forward to be boosted.
75% of those eligible for a booster or a third dose have now received one.
That represents excellent progress, but to deliver maximum benefits we need as many people as possible to get boosted as quickly as possible.
We want to get to - or close as possible to - the target of having 80% of eligible adults boosted by the bells.
Getting there depends on both capacity and demand.
Let me make it clear, we definitely have enough capacity now to meet that target.
What we need between now and the end of the week is high demand - eligible people who aren’t yet boosted to come forward now and get the jag.
High numbers of positive cases are making things more difficult - because if you get the virus, you can’t get the vaccine for a period afterwards.
So cancellation and do not attend rates have been creeping up this week as case numbers have risen.
But to everyone out there who isn’t yet boosted but could be - please book an appointment now or go to a drop in clinic.
If you have an appointment booked for January, please reschedule it for this week. There are plenty of slots available.
Please, please don’t delay. Every single booster jag administered now is a step on the road back to normality.
And remember if you haven’t had your first or second jag yet, it’s never too late for that either. Please make sure you get those now.
To draw my remarks to a conclusion, it’s an understatement to say that the situation we face now is not what any of us want.
And, I have to be clear, that the period immediately ahead will not be an easy one. That said I do hope that the clearer picture we will have in the next couple of weeks will also prove to be a much more positive picture.
And we can all help make it so.
So please, do get fully vaccinated.
Do it this week. The more of us who are boosted, the less severe the impact of Omicron will be and the sooner we will all return to normality.
Secondly, please test regularly.
The advice, if you are meeting other people, is to test before you go, every single time.
And take your test as close as possible, to the time you will be seeing other people. This is really important if you are planning to meet people from other households over Hogmanay. Although I would encourage you to please minimise that.
And finally, take all the other precautions which can help make a difference.
Work from home whenever possible.
Stay at home right now more than normal and reduce your contacts as much as possible - as I said even over Hogmanay.
If you do visit indoor public places, limit the number of households in your group to 3 at most.
Wear a face covering on public transport, in shops, and when moving around in hospitality. And make sure the covering fully covers your mouth and nose.
Keep windows open if you are meeting indoors. And follow all advice on hygiene.
Sticking to this is really hard.
But it does keep us safer and gives us the ability to slow down the spread of the virus as we complete the all-important booster programme.
This has - and this is another understatement - been another really difficult year. But despite these renewed challenges that we face now I do firmly believe - largely because of vaccination - that 2022 will be a better year. Let me conclude by thanking everyone again for all of the sacrifices made over this year and by wishing everyone a very happy new year when it comes. Thank you Presiding Officer.
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